About Howard Wilkinson, Part 2

by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman,

In the second part of our preview of The Square Ball magazine’s exclusive interview with Howard Wilkinson, Moscowhite writes about stammering and yammering at his hero over the phone; about Sergeant Wilko’s willingness to take the brickbats, as well as the bouquets; and about how what someone doesn’t say can often tell us much more than what they do. The full interview is published this weekend in issue seven of The Square Ball magazine, along with this fantastic centre spread by The Beaten Generation.

I haven’t been on many conference calls, but thanks to The Square Ball contributor The Flying Pig I can from now on regale people in pubs endlessly about the time I was on a conference call with Howard Wilkinson. It was, predictably, an odd and educational experience; and that was just operating the phone. To start with, you have to enter a pincode, and then say your name into the phone, and then your arrival is announced to the ‘conference’, and then you can talk. I’d done all this, and was chatting away with TFP, when through our small talk cut a familiar voice that said:

Howard Wilkinson.

I admit: my heart skipped a beat. Sitting in a quietish corner of a pub in central Leeds, on the phone to a Leeds fan in London, and to Howard Wilkinson, who announced himself as “Howard Wilkinson,” in Howard Wilkinson’s voice, and then spoke to us: it was a big moment for me. I don’t remember what I said at first, and TFP didn’t record this bit; I think my first words were something like, “Er, honour, um, Mr Wilkinson, privilege, um, Mr Wilkinson, er.” For a brief moment, I wondered if the whole thing wasn’t some elaborate wind up. Later in the recording you can hear me mumbling at Howard about having his photo on my first ever scrapbook, and wishing him a Happy Christmas; the sound of my forelock being tugged and the gravel being scraped doesn’t come across, fortunately.

The Flying Pig was a bit more composed, and I calmed down eventually. What followed was a surprisingly in-depth and revealing conversation with the best Leeds manager of my lifetime. It had taken a lot of donkey-work to set up, for which The Flying Pig must take all the credit; while Wilko was in lengthy negotiations to keep Sheffield Wednesday afloat, TFP was in lengthy negotiations with Howard’s PA to get an interview for the magazine that Wilko described in the nineties as having, “a lack of originality … reads like back issues of Private Eye, i.e. pre-war.” With Wednesday safely uprighted, Howard gave us about twelve hours notice for a Saturday lunchtime phone conversation; and when, with the call begun, TFP asked Howard how long we had with him my heart sank because I’m sure he said, “About ten minutes.” Maybe I misheard and he said twenty; either way, he kept talking to us quite willingly for over three-quarters of an hour.

In approaching Howard, TFP and I hadn’t wanted to walk the well-worn line of the promotion and title-winning era. We quickly discounted the obvious questions: what was Vinnie like, why did we sell Cantona, what happened in 92/93, why did we sell Cantona, tell us some Mel Sterland stories, why did we sell Cantona. It seemed to us that most of those questions have been answered, as far as Howard was willing, elsewhere; and we wanted to take a different tack. We were interested in the Leeds job as a ten year project, in the elements he’d brought to it from Sheffield Wednesday, in what he had intended to achieve and how things like Thorp Arch had been so successful, in what he’d planned for project year eleven, had he still been there. We were also interested in the effect that the long-term planning had on the on-field performances, and explanations for some of the stranger events (Batty out and Pemberton in, for example).

Howard answered everything in the thoughtful and careful style you would expect. It was actually a pleasure – for example when he was talking about setting up the Thorp Arch academy – to lean back, sip my nerve-settling pint, and listen to those familiar soft South Yorkshire tones calmly explain the theory behind youth football development. Wilkinson has spent a lifetime in the game, as player, coach, manager, administrator, chairman; at all levels from non-league right to the top of the Football Association. The man knows what he’s talking about, and it’s a treat to listen to him.

Wilko also surprised us. We asked the question about his plans for that eleventh year, pointing out that it was almost ten years to the week since Wilkinson’s appointment in 1988 that David O’Leary took over the Leeds job and inherited the ‘babies’ from Thorp Arch. Had Howard wished he’d still been there, to manage Kewell, Woodgate, Smith and co? ”It was my dream,” was Howard’s startling response. I’d never heard him speak like that about the Leeds job; Wilkinson always seemed to talk about projects and pragmatism and work and jobs. I’d expected a similarly pragmatic response to such a conjectural question. But here he was telling us: it had been his dream. It immediately sets you wondering about what ifs – what if his dream had come true, what if Wilko had managed that brilliant side, instead of O’Leary…

Sergeant Wilko doesn’t play the ‘what if’ game very much, though. We found that out after sending him the transcript of our conversation prior to printing it in the magazine. He soon contacted The Flying Pig to discuss some amendments. I wasn’t party to this conversation, but I do know that it took over half an hour as Howard read his reconsidered answers to TFP over the phone; and I was fearful of what I would find had been changed or cut when I saw the new transcript. In fact, Howard mostly just tidied up our straight transcription of his speech, and clarified parts where he hadn’t made his point properly or had repeated himself.

The only significant changes that Wilko made were revealing in their own way, however. Throughout our conversation, it was remarkable how willing Howard was to take responsibility, even blame, for everything. For example, about Tomas Brolin Wilkinson said, “What happened with Tomas wasn’t his fault, it was my fault, a mistake.” To say that none of what happened was Brolin’s fault is, to my mind, a stretch – nobody had forced him to eat all those meatballs, after all – but Howard is willing to take full responsibility for the transfer, and to be quoted as such. It was the nature of our talk, though, as we looked back, that other people should be implicated and mentioned in the story. Nothing Howard said – about boardroom changes, about players, about situations at the club – was particularly earth-shattering or controversial, and most of it could probably be found in the public domain in other forms – but in the second transcript, it was all removed. Any comment that could have been perceived as critical of another person had either been rephrased or removed. Personally, I would have run with it, and not expected to cause anybody any harm; but that’s why I’m a hack writer for a football fanzine, while Howard Wilkinson is Howard Wilkinson. His alterations are an object lesson in humility, responsibility, and sensitivity. I hope I will be forgiven for including here, in true hack style, a comment that Wilkinson removed which I think says a lot about this aspect of his character. We asked at one point if he ever felt like writing another book, to set the record straight on the last few years at Leeds, to restore his reputation with those who said he’d ‘lost it.’ Howard said: ”You can spend your life trying to self justify. But the question you always ask yourself is: ‘If I do this, if I say this, will it be in the best interests of the club going forward?’ If the answer to that is ‘no,’ then you don’t say it, and you don’t do it.”

We’re left, then, trying to find in past events some way of securing the reputation of a man who doesn’t care for living in the past. I’m reminded of the fact that Howard Wilkinson willingly attended the press conference at Leeds that announced his own sacking; you can see him there on the end of season video, sipping champagne and wishing then-Radio Leeds reporter Bryn Law all the best. He tells Richard Whiteley about it in this television interview: ”I turned up and said, look, ask me all the questions you want to ask me, and then I can get on with the rest of my life; we can close this book, and start the next book.” Howard can – and will – reel off the list of his accomplishments at Leeds: Second Division champions, then First Division champions, in just three exhilarating seasons; Charity Shield winners; League Cup finalists; 4th, 5th and 5th place finishes in the top flight; built the East Stand and bought the stadium back from the council; built Thorp Arch and the academy; oversaw, with Paul Hart, winning the FA Youth cup twice; he took an ailing, old-fashioned relic and turned it into a profitable, modern football club; if it hadn’t been for Wilkinson’s vision, and his capability, that eight year exile in Division Two might have become permanent. But what Howard won’t do is try to rewrite or justify the past, or talk about things he could have done but didn’t, or about what other people did or didn’t do. In this age of tell-all stories, sold for megabucks to the Sunday tabloids, we should value that kind of integrity. The past is gone, and no amount of talk can change it now; and the only way Howard Wilkinson would wish to be judged is on the factual record, the record of what he did and what he achieved at Leeds United; and on his character, his demeanour and his way of conducting himself with respect to the club. On both counts, the evidence can only point one way: to the fact that Howard Wilkinson stands second only to Don Revie as the most significant and brilliant manager our football club has ever had.

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Originally on The Square Ball blog